On March 7, 1965, a 25-year-old named John Lewis left the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama and led 600 people on a march intended to highlight the importance of voting rights. On his back, John carried a backpack that held an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, a book on politics and a book on faith.
He and his fellow marchers walked through downtown Selma and arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who beat them with nightsticks, sprayed them with tear gas, and trampled them with horses. Lewis suffered a fractured skull and feared he would die.
That event — known as Bloody Sunday — opened the eyes of our nation and fostered a new determination to continue the struggle for civil rights and voting rights. Months later, in a rejection of this brutality and bigotry, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
Last weekend, I had the honor of representing our region in Alabama to mark this seminal moment in our nation’s history. I joined John Lewis — who has spent the last three decades serving in Congress — and thousands of others from around the country.
I got chills as I watched the daughter of former Gov. George Wallace hug Lewis on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. She apologized for the lack of humanity that her father had shown and said, “Stepping away from a painful past has not always been easy. But it’s always been right.”
It was powerful to sit in the church once pastored by Ralph Abernathy and watch the current chief of the Montgomery Police Department present John Lewis with a plaque featuring multiple law enforcement badges as a symbol of reconciliation.
And words cannot describe what it was like, 50 years after Bloody Sunday, to watch the motorcade of our nation’s first African American president cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge — and an hour later — to watch the president walk across it flanked by John Lewis and hundreds of people of all different ages and races.
But all of us will have failed if last weekend’s events are simply a commemoration. Rather, they must be a recommitment — a re-dedication to the cause of voting rights. As the president reminded us, “The march is not over yet.”
Specifically, Congress must pass a strong reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Between 1982 and 2006, the VRA successfully blocked more than 700 discriminatory voting changes throughout our nation.
Unfortunately, in 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the VRA, striking down a section of the law specifically designed to ensure that when states and local governments with a history of discrimination are changing their voting laws, they aren’t disenfranchising voters.
Why does this matter?
It matters when Galveston, Texas, brought forward a plan to change its voting districts that the Justice Department had previously rejected as discriminatory. Following the court decision, that plan will now move forward.
It matters when the state of Alabama has passed a law establishing a voucher test, requiring that voters be verified by two poll workers in order for them to vote without a government-issued ID. Under that law, a 92-year-old woman was turned away from the polls, told that her public housing ID did not satisfy the state’s requirement.
It matters when, just last decade, a town in Mississippi canceled a municipal election rather than allow an African American majority on the city council.
It matters because, despite the progress our nation has made, racism still exists.
That’s why I’m pushing for Congress to take up and pass a new Voting Rights Act, legislation that would put the teeth back into the VRA, address the issues raised by the court, and counter voter disenfranchisement.
On Saturday, President Obama reminded people: “We have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done — the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
It’s time for members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — to join John Lewis and get their backpacks ready. Our nation’s march is not over.
Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents the 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.